Arab femme helmers find oasis in Doha

The Doha Film Institute is bringing Arab women into its workshops and getting their films up on the screen

When aspiring Qatari filmmaker Hend Fakhroo heard that Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” would be headlining the fourth Doha Tribeca Film Festival this month, she was ecstatic.

Fakhroo, a 30-year-old mother of one, was preparing to present her first short film at the fest, and she counts Nair as one of her chief influences. To show at the same event, she said, was like a dream come true.

And she is not alone. Fakhroo was one of 26 female filmmakers showing at this year’s DTFF, where 87 films unspooled. Among that crop were 11 in the Arab World Competition and, perhaps most impressively, eight Qatari femmes showing in the Made in Qatar section, the annual salute to this gulf nation’s nascent film industry.

Their presence is no coincidence. With ample funding and a drive to promote its own homegrown talent, the Doha Film Institute, which sponsors the DTFF, is giving its all to bringing Arab women into its workshops and getting their films up on the screen.

Fakhroo harbors no illusions about her success. “I don’t know if I was in any other part of the world if my film would have been as supported as it was here,” she said.

Her short documentary, “His Name,” tells her personal story of looking for a connection with an Indian worker in her neighborhood.

She found support and funding from a group of Qatari men at Innovation Films who, despite Qatar’s traditional male-dominated culture, never questioned her ability, she says.

Qatar is so welcoming to female filmmakers, in fact, that at the communications and media school at the new Northwestern U. of Qatar, 80% of students are female. “Lyrics Revolt,” a documentary on hip-hop in the Arab world helmed by four female graduates of the first Northwestern Qatar class, was the darling of this year’s Made in Qatar section. Thanks to DFI, it got a red-carpet preem, a live hip-hop concert following the screening and a catered after-party at one of the posh restaurants dotting the Doha waterfront.

Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker, served on the jury for the Made in Qatar competish and says there has never been a moment like now for female industryites in the region.

“It’s an amazing time for filmmakers, especially female filmmakers, coming from this part of the world, because the area is getting more and more important economically and politically,” she says. “The rest of the world wants to hear from Arab women, and that makes them very important right now.”

And Doha is leading the way. The drive to encourage female helmers here can be traced all the way up to Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, one of the wives of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, emir of Qatar. The highly educated, highly visible royal is completely committed to elevating women in her region, say executives at DFI, making support of female Arab filmmakers a natural mission.

“The focus on women, sort of on a more general level, and encouraging women to engage in different disciplines and work, really started with her vision,” Doha Film Institute CEO Abdulaziz Al-Khater says of the sheikha. “By the time DFI was established and we were doing DTFF, this culture (of supporting women) already had a lot of traction.”

And it’s not just the neophytes who are getting a boost. Nair, who brought “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” to Doha for its Middle East and North Africa debut after opening it at the Venice Film Festival, had a string of successful projects behind her when she started the film. But she has DFI alone to thank for its success.

Speaking with reporters at Doha, Nair explained how she had initially secured five financiers for “Fundamentalist,” including the DFI. And then, one by one, all the others backed out — but DFI stayed on board. After an odyssey that spanned five countries on three continents, the film was made.

Showing in Doha, she said, was a particular honor because the identity struggles of the pic’s Middle Eastern protagonist, Changez, resonated with the audience. “A lot of people here see themselves in Changez’s journey because that’s what it’s like coming here,” Nair said. “Being seen as one thing, when you’re maybe not that thing and you’re maybe much more than that one thing.”

Such a sentiment also seemed to resonate with many of the women showing work in the Arab World competition. Egyptian helmer Maggie Morgan, whose first feature, “Asham: A Man Called Hope,” was in competition at DTFF, says she had been particularly eager to come to Doha because of its openness. The Arab world needs female filmmakers, she says, because there are stories that only they can tell.

“I feel like my film could have only been made by a woman because of the degree of detail and attention to the little things,” she says. “Not to be cliched, but even in life, men don’t notice so many of these little things. I think the humanity of the story has to do with my being a woman.”

Morgan’s pic weaves together the lives of six Egyptian couples as the Jan. 25 revolution unfolds around them.

For Al Mansour, it’s not just that Arab women can tell unique stories, but that they must.

“Arab women are always sheltered, and they’re always veiled and pushed aside,” she says. “And there are lots of smart women who want to push the boundaries and want to take the opportunity to say we are here, we want to do this.”

The films of local women are best, she adds, when they speak straight from the heart.

“These girls, they are coming with their own voices and their own experiences,” Al Mansour says. “They are not talking about anybody else. They are talking about their own world. It’s really cool. It’s a great time for women from this region.”